A Fashion Icon Passes into History

It saddens me to share that Bill Cunningham, the legendary New York Times columnist and fashion photographer of almost 40 years, who documented our evolving society by examining what people wore, died over the weekend. He was 87.

I believe anyone and everyone in the world of fashion had to be influenced by Cunningham’s chronicles. He roamed the streets of New York riding his bicycle with his camera around his neck, ever at the ready to capture what people wore. He sat alongside the haute couture runways across Europe, hung out in Manhattan’s neighborhoods from The Bowery to Harlem and appeared at up to 20 society galas a week. He never missed a detail, a fad, the most creative avant garde or any designer’s attempt to reinvent a classic idea for more modern times.

This quote from Cunningham perhaps best describes the passion that inspired his work. “When I’m photographing, I look for the personal style with which something is worn—sometimes even how an umbrella is carried or how a coat is held closed…I’m interested in capturing a moment with animation and spirit.”

While he was sought after by the fashion world’s rich and powerful, he remained ever humble. He simply wanted to observe rather than be observed. He never owned a television or went to the movies. Until 2010 he lived in a studio above Carnegie Hall, showered in a shared bathroom and slept on a cot, surrounded by rows of cabinets, where he filed away his 35 mm negatives.

In 2008, the French Government bestowed the Legion of Honor on him, in 2009 the New York Landmarks Conservancy made him a living landmark, and in 2010, a documentary, “Bill Cunningham New York,” premiered at the Museum of Modern Art -- a film that he never saw, in which Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, offered, “I’ve said many times, ‘we all get dressed for Bill.’”

Dean Baquet, The New York Times' executive editor, shared: “He was a hugely ethical journalist. And he was incredibly open-minded about fashion. To see a Bill Cunningham street spread was to see all of New York…People who spent fortunes on fashion and people who just had a strut and knew how to put an outfit together out of what they had and what they found.”

Cunningham wrote an essay for The Times in 2002 in which he declared, “Fashion is vital and as interesting today as ever. I know what people with a more formal attitude mean when they say they’re horrified by what they see on the street. But fashion is doing its job. It’s mirroring exactly our times.”

Photo Credit: First Thought Films/Zeitgeist Films